Have you ever been in the middle of an important work session, then been interrupted by a phone call, or a meeting, or someone just dropping by your desk to ask a question, and discovered you were still off track for hours afterwards? Believe it or not, you’re not alone – you might just be a “maker,” or working on a “maker” project.
The reality of knowledge work is that we all have to wear many hats, and collaborating with a team requires communication and collaborative work. However, many of us have quickly discovered that those activities are not conducive to deep, creative work. So how do we go about balancing our days and creating a schedule that allows us to be successful at both kinds of tasks?
That’s the difference between a maker schedule and a manager schedule. A manager’s job, by definition, requires them to stay on top of many different projects and people at once, and that means it’s natural for them to bounce between different meetings, phone calls, and topics all day long. While there are many kinds of jobs that involve a little bit of those tasks without it causing too many problems, there are some roles, and some projects, that really suffer without long bouts of uninterrupted time for creativity and focus.
Think about writing or computer programming, for example. These tasks require long stretches of concentration to get into a groove and begin coming up with creative solutions to complicated problems. The difference between a manager’s work, which is constantly changing, and the maker’s work, which requires intense periods of focus, is that an interruption in the manager’s work day is practically the norm – in fact, rapidly adjusting to unexpected information and figuring out what to do is a key part of their responsibilities . Unfortunately, when a maker is interrupted in the middle of working on something difficult, the distraction can be disastrous. It might take them hours to get back to the place they were at before they were interrupted, and if that happens a couple of times a day, they can struggle to make any progress on their goals for that day.
So how do we enable the makers in our organizations, or ourselves when we’re working on this kind of difficult, focus-requiring project, to thrive and be productive without checking out of the team culture entirely?
First, let’s start at the beginning
Who came up with the idea of the Maker schedule vs the Manager schedule?
The idea of maker schedules and manager schedules, and the conflicts they present in the workplace, was originally described by Paul Graham, the founder of Viaweb, which later became Yahoo Stores, and Y-Combinator, the startup accelerator incubated companies like Dropbox and Airbnb. Reflecting upon his own experiences as a startup founder, he recalled the frustration of being in the middle of working on coding something difficult and the hours of focus that he could lose if he was interrupted. Graham reveals in this essay that he became so concerned about being interrupted that he would frequently start his programming for the day after dinner, then work until three o’clock in the morning so he could find the most uninterrupted time to code.
Of course, he had many other responsibilities as the founder of a business, so when he finally woke up in the morning at 11 a.m. or so, he would end up spending the first part of his day getting all of his management tasks out of the way, to buy himself more uninterrupted time to work on his product in the evening. Now, even Paul Graham would probably admit to you that this isn’t the healthiest way to start a startup, or give yourself the best chance of success – after all, our brains need sleep to function well. That’s why he now recommends founders, and employers, carve out time to enable both of these schedules and help makers to get the most out of their work.
What’s the difference between Maker and Manager schedules?
Paul Graham said that the major difference between these two schedules is that managers think about their day in half hour chunks, based on the meetings and calls they need to take, while makers think about their projects in terms of half days. Makers often split their days before and after lunch, although some do keep extreme schedules to get more alone time.
For a manager, whose day is built around communicating with other people, breaking your day into smaller time blocks makes a lot of sense. After all, the nature of their work requires them to keep an eye on many different projects and people at once. For a maker, whose role is built around the difficult work of producing new things, those interruptions can be a significant obstacle to their ability to get things done. The problem is task-switching, the loss of productivity that happens for most people when they switch their focus from one thing to another, and then again when they try to return to their original task. While that’s part of the job for managers, makers need to be given the time and space to focus uninterrupted.
So why don’t more teams make that possible for their makers?
Why aren’t Maker’s schedules more common?
Cal Newport, professor at Georgetown University and the author of work, among other excellent productivity books, says the sad truth is that “convenience will almost always win.” What he means in this case is that a chat or quick phone call is the most convenient for the managers in a company, and for better or worse, the makers report to them and the manager gets to set everyone’s agenda.
That seems like a silly reason to disrupt the team’s productivity, but it’s usually not intentional – it’s just human nature. Fortunately, there’s no reason it has to stay that way. Any manager who wants to get the most productivity out of the makers on their team can change the way they communicate with them to create more focused time for them to shine.
Let’s discuss a few of those options.
How to get more out of your Makers?
In this section, we’re going to discuss a few different ideas these authors have suggested for giving your makers the time and space to be creative, without just giving up on managing them altogether and letting them run wild.
1. Split the Day
In Paul Graham’s original essay introducing the Maker schedule vs Manager schedule problem, he talked about how the solution he landed on for himself was splitting his day into two chunks, handling managerial duties before dinner, and then coding long into the night. You don’t need to do anything quite that extreme, although working at night works great for some developers, and many writers love waking early to get a head start in the morning solitude before everyone else is awake.
Instead, if you’re working on maker tasks (or managing them,) try splitting your day into two halves, pick which one will be for making, and set a deliverable as a goal for that chunk of your day. Most people tend to find that’s best done in the morning, since spending the first part of your day on management tasks will leave you with a lot to think about the rest of the day while you’re trying to focus. Depending on how distractible you are, and how difficult it is for you to get back into the maker frame of mind, some people have found they can spend the morning creating new things, spend some time before lunch checking in on emails or Slack messages in case their team needs anything, and then be able to jump into a second block of focus in the afternoon.
Take the time to experiment with these options to find what’s best for you and your team.
2. Alternate Days
Cal Newport suggests a slightly more extreme solution: alternating days of the week between maker and manager. In this scheme, you’re essentially providing full days of your attention to managerial tasks in exchange for being left alone on the maker days. In his blog post, he suggests making Monday, Wednesday and Friday “maker days,” since that’s their most important work, and leaving Tuesday and Thursday for either managing a team or taking care of the tasks their manager needs from them.
Of course, urgent issues do come up. Newport recommends setting up rules for when it’s appropriate to interrupt maker time – specifically, a time of day when the maker is most likely to be able to get back into the flow. If you want to take this a step further, he suggests that a dedicated phone number, only to be used in the case of true emergencies, can help your team know that interruptions should be limited to times when it’s absolutely necessary.
3. The Nuclear Option
The last idea that Cal Newport suggests is cutting makers off from team communications entirely – no email address, no Slack chat, no phone. If you want to reach them, you have to go through their manager. In this case, the manager becomes a point person responsible for handling all the organization and communication the team needs out of its makers. That might sound extreme – and it is – but when you’re paying developers, for instance, hundreds of thousands of dollars, it starts to make sense to leave them alone to do their best work.
In this scenario, Newport says, “The manager handles all incoming requests, and in return brings to the makers each day a schedule of what they should be working on — otherwise leaving them to put their head down and craft valuable things.”
While that won’t work for most makers or most organizations, it is the option that would probably get the most productivity out of a maker’s time.
4. The End of the Day
Last but not least, the option that seems to offer the best mix of the maker and manager schedules – having managers check in and handle managerial tasks at the end of the day. Whether that’s half an hour or a couple of hours, this gives the maker the most uninterrupted time to focus on creating for your organization, while also giving the manager and team a simple expectation for when they’ll hear back from the makers.
This seems to work best if there’s a set period of time at the end of each day, with a larger window one afternoon per week to allow time for meetings and team calls. While 30-60 minutes is likely enough time to answer emails and teammates requests, it’s important to have one larger chunk of time for them to be more involved with the team and handle any larger issues that might come up.
That said, it still allows makers to focus in the morning five days a week, and leaves most of the time on their schedule to do the work their best at.
The point of Paul Graham’s essay was to highlight an interesting thing he’d noticed about how people work best, and how founders can recognize which kind of project they’re working on (maker vs manager) and set the best time blocks for that work. However, it raised a lot of interesting questions for the rest of us about how we can enable our teams to do their best work. While you might not want to make any extreme changes to your company, you should take the time to consider how you can enable the markers you work with – yourself included – to find the time and focus they need to get results.